Good day my dear fellow travelers along the Way! Yesterday was another powerful day for many reasons, and not least of all because it marked our transition from being in the Judea area as we head up to Galilee for the next three days.
Yesterday began early, and when I say early, I mean before the first rays of sunlight piercing the sky early. When my alarm went of at 4:30am I immediately turned it of. But knowing myself as I do, I set another alarm because we needed to be packed up and on the bus ready to go by 5:15am. Sure enough I snoozed the second alarm, but by the third one it was time to get up. Thankfully I had packed my luggage the night before so all I needed to do was get dressed and make it outside. It was still dark, and though we were going to be riding the bus in silence the group was pretty quiet at that hour. Everyone made to the bus on time and we were on our way to the first stop on our journey to Galilee.
We drove through the empty streets of Jerusalem, seeing only a few people here and there, but for the most part even the Eternal City was still slumbering away. Our thirty minute silent procession took us east of Jerusalem and into the Judean Wilderness. We were on the road to Jericho and stopped at the Wadi Qelt. This would be the first stop of the day.
The Wadi Qelt is a valley or died-up stream in the West Bank, originating near Jerusalem and running into the Jordan River near Jericho, near the Dead Sea. The wadi is used by many Bedouin shepherds as you will see in the pictures below. The wadi is situated in such a place that if you walk a short distance you reach a bluff that overlooks Jericho and the Jordan River Valley, with the mountains of Jordan visible off in the distance. On a clear day, you can easily see the Dead Sea. So when we hear about Jesus going into the wilderness after his baptism, it would have been something like this; a place with little to no water or vegetation.
We disembarked the coach in silence and walked the 100 yards or so up a small incline towards a small amphitheater that has been erected for tour groups to use when they visit the wadi. We deposited our bags and were free to wander the area to watch the sun rise over the Wilderness. After a time for silent reflection and prayer, we gathered to hear the story of the Good Samaritan, which took place on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, and celebrated the Eucharist. after the Eucharist several Bedouin children and men saw our bus and set up shop to sell us their goods and even camel rides!
After breaking the fast with the Body and Blood of Jesus, it was time for breakfast, so we boarded the bus and continued our decent into the Jordan River Valley and to Jericho. We stopped at another Christian family run restaurant and had another wonderful breakfast.
Once we were fed again, we drove into the city of Jericho where Iyad told us about the historical significance of this desert city. Jericho is important for several reasons. The first being that this is where the Israelites crossed into the Promised Land, and Jericho was the first town that Joshua conquered. In the Book of Joshua, the Israelites destroyed the Bronze Age wall of Jericho by walking around it with the Ark of the Covenant for seven days. The Israelites circled the walls once per day for the first six days, then circled the walls seven times on the final day. The Israelites under Joshua’s command blew trumpets of rams’ horns and shouted to make the walls fall down. Jericho is also important because scripture tells us that Jesus passed through Jericho at least once.
He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” – Luke 19:1-10 (NRSV)
So we stopped in the center of town where the last remaining sycamore tree is located.
While we were taking pictures of the tree, our bus driver Omar, went off to go get us some bananas. Jericho is known for its bananas and pomegranates. The pomegranates were just coming out of season so we didn’t get to sample the goods, but the bananas were delicious, and this is coming from a guy who does not like bananas.
From the tree, we headed out beyond the city towards a set of mountains for our fourth stop of the morning, the Mount of Temptation.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’”
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. – Matthew 4:1-11 (NRSV)
There are two ways to get to the monastery near the top of the mountain; the first being you can walk the whole way up. Iyad was smart in knowing that none of us would be up for that, so we took the second way up; cable car part of the way and then walk the rest. The cable car ride was quite fun as we got a pretty amazing aerial view of Jericho and the valley below. Some of the group decided walking the rest of the way was not a good idea so they hung out at one of the several restaurants that are half-way up the mountain. Iyad stayed behind while Fr. David and I led the group up to the Greek Orthodox monastery that is inhabited by only two monks now. It was a beautiful monastery cut into the side of the mountain, with winding walkways and stairs, and chapels carved into the rocks and caves.
With the monastery being our fourth stop of the morning, it was time to drive to Nazareth for lunch. The drive took us a little over an hour and a half through the Jordan River Valley and then up into Lower Galilee. Along the way however, we needed to pas through a checkpoint as we were moving from the Wets Bank and into Israel. This checkpoint experience was pretty typical, in that, we stopped and two armed Israeli soldiers boarded the bus. They asked who we were (Americans), where we were going (Nazareth) and where we were coming from (Jerusalem). Iyad warned us that they would come on the bus and that we should give them our passport only if we are asked. Iyad also intentionally left out that we stopped in Jericho because in his experience it almost always results in being pulled over and interrogated further, so we chose to tell the broader truth. The woman who boarded looked maybe 19 years old at best but she was serious. The armed man behind her was a little more calm, assuring us that this happens all the time and that it is routine. The woman approached me, and sure enough, asked to see my passport. She flipped through it, asked me to take off my sunglasses, and gave me a look before handing me back my passport and moving on. She did this two more times while also waking up anyone who might be asleep. The whole stop took less than five minutes, and I think because we were Americans we were not held long.
We passed through the checkpoint and were once again on our way north to Galilee. We stopped at a little restaurant that we had eaten at three years ago, and the food was good. We were served all sorts of salads, and then chicken and lamb kabobs. From there we had just two more stops for the day; the Church of the Annunciation and the Church of the Annunciation.
We stopped at the first Church of the Annunciation which is a Greek Orthodox church that is located above Mary’s Well, the site of the only spring-fed fountain in the city. Tradition says that this is the well that Mary would have visited to get water and where she was met bu the angel of the Gabriel. It is a beautiful small church and the first time I visited this site.
After the Greek Orthodox church we walked through the city of Nazareth towards the other Church of the Annunciation; the Roman Catholic Church run by the Franciscans. Along the way, Iyad stopped to see another “cousin” who runs a spice shop in the city. It was pretty amazing to see and smell all the spices in the shop.
After a few more blocks through the winding streets of Nazareth we saw the very large Church of the Annunciation, which is technically a basilica. The church was established at the site where, according to Roman Catholic tradition, the Annunciation took place. Greek Orthodox tradition holds that this event occurred while Mary was drawing water from a local spring at the first church we visited in Nazareth. The current church is a two-story building constructed in 1969 over the site of an earlier Byzantine-era and then Crusader-era church. Inside, the lower level contains the Grotto of the Annunciation, believed by many Christians to be the remains of the original childhood home of Mary. It is also adorned with different mosaics of Mary that have been gifted from different countries. What makes these mosaics so cool, in my opinion, is that Mary resembles the people and the culture from which the mosaic came; so Mary in the mosaic from Japan is Japanese, and in the mosaic from the Philippines, she is Filipino. It is really interesting to see how different cultures see her and which attributes in particular they wish to highlight.
Since we woke up at 4:30am and had already stopped several times, Iyad felt that we had seen enough and it was time to go to the Convent of the Sisters of Nazareth, so we only stayed at the Latin Church of the Annunciation for about thirty minutes. As it turns out the convent is right next door to the church, I am looking at the church through my window as I type this, and Iyad told us to come visit again during our free time to see more of the church.
It was a busy day, but an amazing day in which we saw the sun rise over the wilderness, we climbed the Mount of Temptation, and visited two different churches dedicated to one event. All of us were exhausted and I am sure will sleep well for whatever is in store for us tomorrow. Until then dear friends!